UPDATE: Chamber, youth soccer, residents group back Whitecaps' plan
Putting a professional soccer team into Queen's Park Stadium is the only financially viable plan David Brett says he's heard that will save the 65-year-old structure.
That's even as signs sprout up on lawns in his neighbourhood and around New Westminster suggesting a proposal by the Vancouver Whitecaps to put its minor developmental team into the old ball yard would hasten its demise.
"The stadium is for the fans, and not a lot of them are using it at this time," said the president of the Queen's Park Residents' Association. Brett was speaking at a press conference Wednesday, at which his group was joined by the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce and Royal City Youth Soccer in voicing shared support for the project.
In July the Major League Soccer team signed a memorandum of understanding with the City of New Westminster to work toward putting a United Soccer League PRO franchise into Queen's Park Stadium. The team would be co-owned and operated by local development consultant Gary Pooni, his partner, developer Ian Gillespie of Westbank Projects, and the Whitecaps.
But for that to happen would require converting the stadium into a soccer-specific park by removing the baseball diamond, as well as refurbishing the old grandstand and adding new bleachers to bring seating capacity to at least 3,500. The Whitecaps would also like the city to build another artificial turf training field to replace the old asphalt tennis courts next to the stadium.
The plan raised the ire of the city's baseball players and officials, who said they'll lose the only full-sized diamond in New West.
Each side has launched petitions to rally support for its contention.
The proposal has even caught the attention of some heritage buffs who say the wooden grandstand has a unique aesthetic appeal.
Brett said the lawn signs to "Save Queen's Park Stadium" give the impression the old grandstand would be bulldozed to accommodate pro soccer but, in fact, "continuing the stadium as it's currently used will ensure it eventually goes the way of the buffalo."
In May 2013, city council adopted a master plan for the park that suggests a new, smaller grandstand seating 300-500 people could replace the stadium because it's rarely filled to capacity.
Brett said while residents in his neighbourhood immediately adjacent to Queen's Park expressed concerns about the impact 3,500 soccer fans streaming into their area 14 times a year would have on traffic and parking, 58 per cent still gave their approval to the Whitecaps' proposal in a recent survey his group commissioned. He said he expected those concerns to be addressed if the proposal goes forward.
The group representing the city's 1,200 registered soccer players are also keen to have the Whitecaps in town. Guy Ciprian, president of Royal City Youth Soccer, said not only would the young players benefit from access to top-quality facilities, they'd also have role models.
"For our kids to have up-front access to professional athletes is priceless," said Ciprian. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Jamie Woods, a director with the Chamber of Commerce, conceded while there are still financial details of the proposal to be revealed, "as long as the associated costs are reasonable, the proposal would be beneficial to the business community."
Woods said revenue from the Whitecaps would be a way to finance the repairs to the grandstand.
Whitecaps' president Bob Lenarduzzi said while the financial terms of putting a team in New West are still being worked out, he can "ensure it's a good financial arrangement for the city."
But the clock is ticking.
Lenarduzzi refused to budge from the team's desire to get a deal done by Sept. 15 to meet the deadline for a franchise application to the USL.